Nerark Morris is operating the first Woppaburra tourism business in Keppel Bay
Nerark Morris is operating the first Woppaburra tourism business in Keppel Bay Christine Mckee

Traditional owners mean business on Great Keppel Island

MOST Australians still associate Great Keppel Island with the party mecca of the eighties and the now infamous slogan "Get Wrecked on GKI".

The island's recent history is more about being wrecked than getting wrecked as it sits on the verge of another new beginning.

But to the island's traditional owners, the story and its potential runs much deeper.

Pending State Government approval of the sale, its future is now in the hands of Singapore-based investors, CK and Isabella Wei, who have signed contracts for the leases, complete with approved resort plans, from Tower Holdings.

Isabella Wei in particular wants to work with the Woppaburra moving forward, so for the first time since 1902 they may have some say in the future of their own land.

 

CELEBRATING SALE: Knight Frank's Pat O'Driscoll, Mayor Bill Ludwig, Knight Frank's Ben McGrath, investor CK, Isabella Wei, Capricorn Enterprise CEO Mary Carroll, investment partner Hsiao Yuan Ju, Knight Frank's Tom Gibson and Member for Keppel MP Brittany Lauga.
CELEBRATING SALE: Knight Frank's Pat O'Driscoll, Mayor Bill Ludwig, Knight Frank's Ben McGrath, investor CK, Isabella Wei, Capricorn Enterprise CEO Mary Carroll, investment partner Hsiao Yuan Ju, Knight Frank's Tom Gibson and Member for Keppel MP Brittany Lauga. Contributed

It's been 11 years since the Woppaburra were handed back freehold title over 174ha of the island by then Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh.

Until then, they had no voice and no claim over their Country, but with a respect for the past and an eye to the future, that's changing.

Earlier this year, the first Woppaburra business emerged in the form of whale watching tours and introduction to Country.

The tours were conducted by Nerark Morris in conjunction with the Great Keppel Island Hideaway and Keppel Konnections in attempt to share the culture and build on the tourism potential to provide training and employment for young Woppa.

Morris has a "one mob" theory, that "we're all Australians".

He respects the past and says people need to understand it, but he's looking to the future.

He believes the past atrocities need to be recognised and says he's dumbfounded that people don't know about it, but he also says there's been a lot of healing going on.

"Some people are a little too culturally sensitive and need to stop carrying the 'woe is the black fella' baggage around. Some of the elders are still entrapped in that, but we can't do anything to change it," he said.

"We can acknowledge it, embrace it and educate people, but we can only do what we can do - that softens the wound and becomes part of the healing process.

"That's what I'm trying to do, change the future for my kids and grandkids."

 

Woppaburra elders and descendants meet with Tower Holdings CEO Terry Agnew elders on Great Keppel Island in 2013.
Woppaburra elders and descendants meet with Tower Holdings CEO Terry Agnew elders on Great Keppel Island in 2013. Christine McKee

Morris spent years working in tourism and catering, including as a Contiki tour guide in the Northern Territory.

The call came from GKI Hideaway to ask if he could be there in two days. The tours ran earlier this year and when the season finished a familiarisation tour was run using local tourism operators "as guinea pigs" to look at ways to improve on what they'd started.

"If I'm going to put my name, and the Woppaburra name to it, I want it to be 11/10. So far the feedback has been good," Morris said.

"I'm trying to create a new type of tourism where everyone from children to elderly can get something out of it."

Upgrades are being done on the boat with plans to introduce a six-hour tour leaving from Rosslyn Bay, with lunch - maybe a beach BBQ with kangaroo, crocodile, pickled seafood with ginger and coriander and bush tucker - a taste of a different cultural experience.

And he sees an opportunity for young Woppa to train and to be employed, learning and sharing their own culture.

He says Indigenous Australians are becoming more connected to Country and more connected to culture.

"Because we're allowed to practice it now, we have a voice now," he said.

"I'm trying to leave something distinct for the next generation coming, so all the hard work's already done and we can move ahead with it.

"As it is, with council laws, we can't go onto our own land that was given back to us by the Bligh government, have a fire and camp legally.

"I appreciate what they did for us, but they gave us all the conservation area, no-one wants to give us a chance to utilise the land, be self-sufficient, run businesses and have opportunities.

"That land was handed back to us with literally no money. It was like getting a car but with no fuel to drive it away.

"There's only Lot 21, probably the size of about two house blocks, where we could put an information centre or something like that."

Plans for the billion dollar redevelopment of Great Keppel Island include a Woppaburra Cultural Centre and the Weis insist it's a part of the plan they want to retain.

CK and Isabella Wei have met with some of the Woppaburra elders on the island and further talks are planned.

The traditional owners want to be involved with the development and have warmly welcomed the Weis.

They see opportunity for their youth in particular, but their ideas vary from the planned mega-resort they say is no different to others around the world.

Morris says Great Keppel Island is the ideal opportunity for a globally unique, eco-tourism resort.

 

whale watching in Keppel Bay
whale watching in Keppel Bay contributed

"My message to Isabella Wei is that we don't want the Maldives," he said.

"They are there; the Whitsundays are just up the road if we want that sort of stuff.

"The opportunity for them is to be at the top of their game, renowned for owning the best alternate, Indigenous eco-tourism resort in the world.

"That way they are in a specialised field that no-one else is into... if they just have faith in a sustainable future that would leave a very minimal scar and everybody could share. "

Last month Pumpkin Island, also in Keppel Bay, was named Australasia's most sustainable hotel at the World Boutique Hotel Awards in London.

Morris says he'd like to see Great Keppel fall in line with the Pumpkin Island idea, but is it a reality?

It can be, he says, if you have the money and the technology.

"When you look at what it's going to cost them to do what they plan, it's a reality," he said.

"Eco-Indigenous tourism would make this place very unique.

"The government, everybody involved, are just thinking about the short-term fix.

"They are going to put a band-aid on the wound and hope it doesn't get infected, instead of actually stitching it up and letting it heal.

"Forget the pipeline to the mainland. It's expensive and an absolute waste of resources with the technology available.

"I look at the pollution around Hamilton Island. It's that thick with aeroplane fuel floating across the surface. The marina smells disgusting.

"I don't want to see that happen here, it's too much of a special place.

"We are on biodiversity borderline. Things from the north only come this far south and things from the south only come this far north.

"It's a unique, special part of the world and all we want is to be part of that ecosystem again."

Great Keppel Island
Great Keppel Island Knight Frank

At 51, Morris not classified as an elder but assumes the role when there are no elders in the area. He's also an applicant on the Woppaburra Native Title claim.

He says since the resort closed 11 years ago, they are seeing a healing.

Seagrass is coming back, the reef is coming back and more dugongs are being spotted.

There are 17 islands that all come under Woppaburra land and sea area and Morris says he'd like to see that acknowledged "a bit more".

"What people don't realise is we aren't silly," he said.

"There's a lot of smart and educated Woppaburra."

"The elders have realised, since the handback in 2007, that we need to make clear decisions.

"I'm trying to relay to them what I see on the ground but some of them don't like hearing it from the younger ones.

"They say I've been here two smokos and I think I know everything. But it's not that.

"I do everything from the heart, I'm giving pieces of myself away and at the same time I'm growing and I'm gaining.

"My saddest thing is we don't have a big enough impact on Great Keppel Island.

"But we are on our way back, and that's all part of the story."



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